Category Archives: Ghost in the Machine

Bullseye! Look at what we could have won…

“That’ll kill you,” I cheerfully called out to the car parking attendant at the Covid-19 Vaccination Hub as he lit up a surreptitious cigarette on the side of the road. No doubt attuned to the futility of my off the cuff remark, he ignored me and kept his stare on the argumentative pair of security guards who were at it hammer and tongs down at the security gates.

“If you don’t like the fucking job why don’t you just fuck off?” remonstrated an elderly man heatedly to his younger colleague who was no slouch when it came to returning the insults. I missed the rest of the barbed comments between them as I turned the corner and entered the inner sanctum of the Hub: a long queue of hopefuls and sorrowfuls were stretched out in front of me, all waiting our turn for what we fervently hoped would be our promise of happier days ahead.

The inner sanctum had in a previous life been the hallowed ground of the Central TV studios where the ITV gameshow, Bullseye, was produced. Mixing general knowledge questions with darts, Bullseye was fronted by its once famous compère, Jim Bowen, who used to encourage his participants with several catchphrases: “Super Smashing Great” (although he disputed he ever said that); they’d receive their “BFH: Bus Fare Home” if they gambled but lost; “Keep out of the black and in the red; nothing in this game for two in a bed” referred to how contestants would have to avoid hitting the dart board in the same place twice; and perhaps the biggest killer catch phrase of all time, particularly in these Covid-sensitised times, “Look at what you could have won!”.

There was plenty of time to think about the irony of a site of a popular TV quiz game turning into a mass Vaccination Hub where the only prizes were of the Oxford / AstroZeneca or the Pfizer variety because the queue wended its way slowly into and around and through the studios.

There was no random throwing of darts into an outsize dartboard though; just the careful and attentive work of many NHS staff and volunteers, ensuring we were all focused on one common purpose: our salvation and wishes for better days for our friends, families, communities and nations after the disasters of 2020.

Look at what we could have won. You just had to read the news on your phone or in your newspaper to catch up with the recent mortality figures. 121,000 and still counting inthe UK; unimaginable numbers across the planet.

But for all the solemnity and patience of the queue, the ability of the staff to react swiftly to an ever changing situation was remarkable: one young lad with diabetes was brought through the Hub at pace. He’d been struggling but his carers were dealing with it swiftly, directly and with the minimum of drama or game show pizazz.

It was one tiny insight into the myriad of struggles that people here, across the country, across the world, have been enduring over the last year. “Look at what you could have won!” I nearly called out to the car park attendant on my way out but thought better of it. He was enjoying his cigarette in the warm early Spring afternoon air and didn’t need any more reminders of what is just around the corner.

Rust, dust and lust: a cautionary tale of resilience.

Once upon a time there was a castle which was crumbling from the foundations upwards. The white ants had been busy over the years and whilst the facade looked stable, the foundations had powdered to ashes and the ashes had powdered to dust and the dust had blown away in the cruel winds of fortune.  One day, with the townsfolk looking on and attending a gigantic carnival in the middle of the splendiferous grounds, the castle, once so proud and austere, so demanding of its audiences and towns folk, decided to call it a day and crumbled away to very little in the space of a couple of shocking seconds.

Gasps wouldn’t do justice to the sounds the townsfolk made when they saw their castle disappear in front of their eyes.  Something that had appeared so steady and so reliable had been shaken to nothing in the blink of several thousands’ peoples’ eyes.

To be continued…

Ghost in the Machine: The technology of the English Tea Room.

We’ve got the automation of our crumpet making facility down to a T now. The dough goes in there, it’s kneaded and proved there, shaped and baked there and dispensed onto bright white plates there, before being accompanied by portion controlled dollops of butter and regulated strawberry jam just there.

The trouble with employing people is that you could never  precisely control the portions; sometimes customers were sold too little, sometimes too much. Increasingly we found ourselves wasting far too many raw ingredients which was knocking a whacking collection of crumpet size small whole holes in our bottom line, and until we automated the process, there was a real risk of the business failing.

No longer though: we’ve turned what was a sinking Bismarck sized bun of a business into a lean mean crumpet machine which is forecast to grow by 19% every year for the foreseeable future. And all because we automated every aspect of the operation which had the potential for human error to drive up costs and drive down profits.

Of course, it’s a bit lonely for the one remaining operative down on the factory floor but at least she’s in a job, unlike the 16 ex-colleagues who are now retraining for new careers in the catering industry. But I ask myself, who wants to spend their whole time punching holes in crumpets anyway? What kind of life is that?

And don’t get me started on the dignity of labour: there’s nothing dignified about standing up to your ears in dough all day, tramping around and around in circles just to get the consistency right. I know for a fact that those we laid off have a much more fulfilling life since we had to let them go.

No, we’ve never had any problem with the automation process ever since we had it installed. There was only the one occasion when a customer found a wasp in the jam portion she had been dispensed but we soon sorted that out: straight into the incinerator it went. The wasp I mean, not the customer haha.

Mind you, if someone could make automated customers one day that would make life easier for everyone. That’s the main trouble with this business now, the customers keep getting in the way of you doing your job.

Ghost in the Machine: The Future is Human.

Data entry has to be done by a human.

Yes, I know it breaks protocol but that’s the way the boys upstairs want it to be. And yes I know it’s asking for trouble but believe you me, if will be a damn sight easier than relying on an algorithm.

Yes, I know our algorithms are top of the range but the fact is that the algorithm has had its day. Yes, I know that comes as a bit of a shock to you all but them what know have given me the wink and the nod is that this year’s next big thing will be the human.

Forget Google glass; forget wearables; forget GPS, GLS, GLC and don’t even begin to other with the GPO. No, the future is bright, the future is the human.

Now I know this will come as a bit of a shock to those of you who have dedicated your lives to all things algorithmic but trust me: you will be safe and your futures protected. We have begun negotiations with them upstairs about the kind of human that would be suitable for the job in hand and have been consulted about the best ways to minimise job losses.

Our boffins are working with their boffins to make sure that the humans in question will need specially dedicated algorithms to get them up in the morning and to get them into the data input station at the right time at the right place.

The operation of the human will not take away our jobs:  it’s just part of a wider restructuring agenda which has been hitting the economy and our sector particularly hard. Steady on, steady on, threatening to wreck their work stations won’t help any one. The fact is that technology is reconfiguring our work life balance on a daily basis. Such is the way of the world and I’d be abnegating my responsibility to you guys if I didn’t spell out the repercussions of employing humans to input data instead of our tried and tested algorithms.

But I’ve been convenor of this branch for more years than I care to remind you and have seen these management tactics many times before. So all I ask you is that you trust me and the colleagues to argue for your best interests.

Now, who’s buying the coffee?

MenschMachine: Kraftwerk takes on the Medics and the NMR Industry

I’m led into a modest clinic, disinfected, spartan, imposing. A large nuclear magnetic resonance imaging device takes centre stage. I am told to lie down on a table , hold my arms in a fixed position, place my chin on a poystyrene pad and not to move. Apparently all my hydrogen ions are about to cajoled to spin in one direction – altogether now. The ones in my water molecules will spin at a different rate than the ones in my lipid molecules and they – the nurses, not the molecules – will be able to determine how healthy I am and whether I’ve spent to much time in the bar in recent years.

Slowly, the slab I’m on enters the machine and the chorus of clicks whirrs thuds hums and clanks kicks off. It’s like living in a Kraftwerk album, but in one of the lesser, in progress tracks. But its not unpleasurable. Intriguing with a laser green light just a few inches above your head and reminiscent of the Expo 2000 track they produced.

The clicks whirrs and thumps continue at regular intervals until the slab rolls back out of the machine. I’m told to turn over, tuck that in, loosen that and don’t forget to breathe. The process starts again for a further 10 minutes. This time you’re given head phones as the sound can reach upto 120 decibels apparently. Something you might be familiar with smirks the nurse.

On the way out of the clinic you realise that you have just been examined by a Magnetom Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine which goes under the delightful name of the Symphony Maestro.

I don’t know why I’m surprised. The whole event has been a sub-orchestral event with some very low bass notes played in counterpoint to some ultra ultra high frequencies which only the local sewer rats can hear. It has been Kraftwerk at their most uninspiring. But fundamentally, this has been a musical event, not a medical one.

I realise I am used to Kraftwerk making all kinds of molecules vibrate in all kinds of ways in recent years and reckon that the health information you could gather from listening to Tour de France for an hour would yield much better health benefits than the diagnostics the Symphony Maestro will be able to generate.

The event emphasises that the connections between arts and health – and in particular music – are closer than many nurses and doctors might like to admit to. Music is my first love warbled John Miles many years ago; this may be true but it might be more accurate to say that it is also our first way of connecting with the world through how its frequencies make our molecular structures resonate: although that would hardly be the title of a top ten hit, now, would it?